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Commentary: The Right Way to Express Gratitude This Holiday Season

November 21, 2017, 9:54 PM UTC
Overhead view family eating Christmas dinner
Caiaimage/Robert Daly Getty Images/Caiaimage

The scientific evidence is clear: Regularly expressing gratitude elicits benefits to social relationships, physical health, sleep, and daily habits. In my own research, I have found that being grateful activates brain regions critical for emotion, relationships, and decision-making, all of which highlight gratitude’s central role in the good life.

So go ahead, be grateful … if only it were so simple to wish ourselves into gratitude at a moment’s notice. Indeed, conjuring gratitude takes a little bit more than wishful thinking. In other words, knowing why gratitude is good is far different from knowing what gratitude is, and perhaps most importantly how to actually be grateful.

Gratitude is a key member of the family of positive emotions that we can and should savor. We often think of positive emotion and feelings, such as gratitude, as being less important or real than negative emotions, such as fear. Remember, however, that evolution imbued upon us the ability to experience a wide range of emotions for good reason. Each emotion, properly experienced, can help us prosper and can enhance our ability for decision-making. We commonly define gratitude as the feeling we can have when we recognize something that fulfills a personal need, and that comes as a result of well-intentioned effort. Thus, while emotions such as fear and anger can guide us to proper responses in certain circumstances, likewise, emotions such as love and gratitude can provide critical benefits to performance and decision-making as well.

In the name of the holiday season, consider next the task for how to be grateful. To practice gratitude while receiving is to practice the humility of recognizing our own needs as others do their best to address them. Practicing gratitude allows us to see that what we have, regardless of material quantity, is something to work from—we find abundance where we develop the vision to see it. Gratitude, then, is not so simple as “having nice things,” but is instead a dispositional process of identifying and appreciating what we have been given and building from it. It may take practice to enhance and generate gratitude, but with each moment, and indeed each challenge, we have the opportunity to learn, grow, and practice gratitude as a means of building resilience and connection to others.

Giving gifts poses the opportunity to show support and draw ourselves closer to others, but comes with some risk. In the wrong cases, we may give with the right intentions, but be stymied by expectations or mistakes in reading the needs of the recipient. Imagine picking that perfect sweater for a friend, only to suffer the indignity of handing over the gift receipt over hushed explanations. But take heart, the point of gratitude is not to foist it upon others—research has shown that one of the fastest ways to extinguish gratitude is to tell someone to be grateful for your efforts and that you expect them to repay you. Fortunately, to the contrary, research has shown that freely given, unexpected, and thoughtful gifts are the most powerful, not necessarily gifts that are expensive or valuable. The point of giving is to savor our own best and honest efforts to help others, whatever the results may be. If we can be charged with “forgiving and forgetting,” then the inverse can also be true. When it comes to gifts, we can “give and forget” just as well.


Holidays or not, every day presents a chance to use gratitude as a tool for building well-being. The holidays can be complex—it is the season of joy, but also a time where many process difficulties bygone or ongoing. The challenge is to be grateful for the process. Regardless of context, however, remember that to reap gratitude’s powerful benefits, it is our own duty to invoke gratitude as the catalyst for its virtuous cycle—give and receive freely, humbly, and without expectation.

Glenn R. Fox is the head of the USC Performance Science Institute at the USC Marshall School of Business. He earned his Ph.D. in Neuroscience from USC and studies the role of emotion and mindset in health and performance.